In a new documentary, The Kill Team, director Dan Krauss tells the story of the group of US soldiers convicted of murdering unarmed Afghan civilians. The documentary looks at the roles played by not one, but two soldier-whistleblowers. Krauss talks to Bob about the moral ambiguities of the story and the difficulty of doing the right thing in a war zone.
BOB GARFIELD: The story broke in early 2011.
KATIE COURIC: Five US soldiers stand accused of shocking crimes that include murdering Afghans for sport.
BOB GARFIELD: In 2010, a group of American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province formed what they called the “Kill Team,” the team’s goals being to murder Afghan civilians and cover up the crimes by planting weapons on the corpses. The infantrymen also posed for grisly photos and videos of their victims, and the team leader cut off fingers as war trophies. They killed three unarmed Afghan civilians, one a 15-year-old boy before they were caught, convicted at court-martial and sentenced to terms ranging from nine months in prison to life. Now a documentary about the crimes, featuring astonishing confessions from the principals, sheds real light on the case and on the barbarism of war. Dan Krauss directed the documentary, The Kill Team. His window into the story was a series of press reports about a young soldier said to be a whistleblower. But Private Justin Stoner was not only not the soldier in his platoon trying to stop the killings, he made clear to Krauss that the outing of the Kill Team was an unforgivable betrayal.
DAN KRAUSS: After speaking with Stoner in the production of this film, I learned that he very much disavows that characterization. And, in fact, he is deeply regretful that he had anything to do with the incarceration of his fellow soldiers. He, in his mind, has violated the highest moral priority of an infantryman, which is he has betrayed his fellow soldiers.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
PVC JUSTIN STONER: I never want to be referred to as a “whistleblower” because it’s worse than what they're being portrayed as. If I could go back, I wouldn’t have said anything.
BOB GARFIELD: And, furthermore, what he revealed, at least initially, had nothing to do with the murder of civilians but in fact, drug use by his platoon members in his tent, which just annoyed him.
DAN KRAUSS: Right. He came back from mission and detected the smell of marijuana in his room and became irate and reported that to his superior, which, in turn, filtered right back down to the platoon. And they gathered and quickly decided to beat him up. And the investigation into that beating was ultimately what led investigators to discover the crimes.
BOB GARFIELD: Ironically though there had been a previous whistleblower, in fact, of the atrocities, who, through his dad, had tried to alert the Army to what was going on but that soldier, Adam Winfield and his dad failed to penetrate the Army bureaucracy.
DAN KRAUSS: That's right. Adam Winfield reached out to his father through Facebook because he was afraid to speak with his father by telephone for fear that the other soldiers would overhear him. So he asked his father for help and advice. And together, they decided to alert the military through back channels. And Christopher Winfield, back home in Florida, started calling everyone he could think of - Army investigators in Washington. He called the Army Chaplain's Office at Fort Lewis. He even called his US senator in Florida, to no avail. He eventually got hold of a duty officer at Fort Lewis, who informed him that unless someone came forward with a similar story, there was nothing he could do. And so, Chris had a decision to make: How far was he going to take this in order to get someone's attention? If he continued pushing it, the question he asked himself is, will I get my son killed? And he told me it was the most difficult decision he's ever had to make in his life. They decided that the best strategy would be for Adam to keep his head down, to lay low, to stay away from the other members of the Kill Team and to come home so that he could report the crimes to investigators afterward. But before that could happen, a murder occurred right in front of him, and Adam was forced to decide whether or not in that moment he was going to stand up to prevent the murder from happening or, or whether he would go along with it, try to come back from the war in one piece.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about Adam Winfield.
DAN KRAUSS: Well, Adam Winfield was a specialist in the platoon, and when the first murder occurred he was deeply troubled.
BOB GARFIELD: He was afraid, first of all, that if he went through the chain of command it would come right back down to his platoon leader, a sergeant named Calvin Gibbs who was the ringleader of the Kill Team, who had threatened him with violence, and Winfield had very good reason to think that his life was in danger.
DAN KRAUSS: Yes. As soon as Adam voiced any misgivings about these crimes, he immediately started receiving threats from the other soldiers directly to his face, and he knew that they were serious; he knew that they didn't want to spend the rest of their life in prison and would do what they had to do to make sure that didn't happen.
BOB GARFIELD: Perhaps what’s most astonishing about this film is the tape you’ve gathered of these guys telling you everything.
DAN KRAUSS: Yes, they were anything but mindless grunts. These were young man that had an astonishing degree of articulateness and reflection on their crimes and, in a broader way, their role as soldiers in this war. And it was hard not to be, in some cases, even charmed by them. I couldn't reconcile the experience of sitting in a room with these young guys with the photographs they had made, for instance, in Corporal Morlock’s case, the photograph of him holding up a 15-year-old boy’s head.
BOB GARFIELD: The film’s narrative follows the legal case of Specialist Adam Winfield who was the would-be whistleblower. It's also the subject of a lot of moral ambiguity because he was, on one hand, trying to stop the Kill Team from murder but was also a participant.
DAN KRAUSS: And that was exactly what drew me to the story. When I first read the description of Adam Winfield, it described him as both a whistleblower and a murder suspect, and immediately I was drawn to understand how that could be, how could these two moral poles exist in one person; what had happened? Adam claims that he aimed his weapon away from the victim and fired off into the air, but what's clear is that he did not stop the murder from happening, and that’s, in – indeed, what he was ultimately charged with, involuntary manslaughter for not preventing Sergeant Gibbs and Corporal Morlock from proceeding with the murder. Adam fully accepts responsibility and has a deep remorse for not doing more.
BOB GARFIELD: Among the questions raised by the film and not answered is the question of institutional culpability on the part of the Army. And the other issue that seems unresolved is how much of an outlier this is. There’s a scene at the end which is positively chilling.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP & UNDER]:
PVC JUSTIN STONER: Everything we did was put into the media as we’re horrible, we’re the Kill Team, we’re “rogue platoon,” we’re all these things. I don’t care what the military wants to say, but this goes on more than just us. We’re just the ones that got caught.
BOB GARFIELD: So that’s Private Stoner justifying the murders as – standard operating procedure.
DAN KRAUSS: I would caution against any presumption that this is widespread. But what I would say, and this is what I’ve heard anecdotally from all the soldiers I’ve spoken with, is that it certainly happens more than people know. I think there is an institutional question related to these crimes, that it is larger than the soldiers themselves. This is the paradox of the military, that the military functions effectively when there is this deep cohesion among all the soldiers, but that cohesion also prevents soldiers from stepping outside of the group and questioning the moral direction that it's taking. I think what makes it so difficult to be a whistleblower in the military is that the loyalty that soldiers feel to one another overpowers any other moral impulse. These sorts of atrocities date back to the Greek wars, to the Bible. I mean, anyone who reads Homer will tell you about war crimes. And so, to dismiss this as the actions of a few bad apples is to ignore the larger questions that these incidents provoke.
BOB GARFIELD: I came away from this feeling ambiguously about many aspects of the issues at hand. What was your wish as a filmmaker for me to come away with?
DAN KRAUSS: I would like audiences to recognize that when we as a nation commit our troops to war, we are certainly asking a sacrifice in terms of money and of blood, but what we don't think as much about is the moral sacrifice that we’re asking our troops to make and the moral sacrifice that we as a nation are making. And there’s a new term that the psychiatrists are now using to describe a type of psychological injury from the theater of war, which is called a moral injury, very different than PTSD. A moral injury is the result of either having taken an action or not having taken an action that violates their own moral code. This is something that more and more soldiers are describing. These injuries are not only incredibly destructive in the moment, these injuries haunt soldiers because they're forced to replay their decision in their mind over and over again.
BOB GARFIELD: Dan, thank you very much.
DAN KRAUSS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Dan Krauss is the director of the Kill Team, which is currently on the festival circuit. On Thursday, it won the Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca film Festival.